Monday, July 09, 2007

The 2007 NCAA Previewtacular: THE BIG EAST

Sorry about the long wait, my...tens? of readers. It's really been a crazy time, with all the adventures that have kept me away from my blog, but I'm not at liberty to talk about what's been going on. They're making a movie based on it, I have to keep it all hush hush. Those are all lies. I've actually been busy with finals, then conducting a job search (which is still underway -- hire me!), wading through preview magazines, and, recently, being quite sick. But fear not, I have returned, and I come bearing gifts! The gift -- of the 2007 NCAA Previewtacular. First, my wheelhouse, being a UConn grad: THE BIG EAST!


(Based on averages of the rankings from Athlon, Lindy's, Phil Steele's power poll near the back of his book, and The Sporting News's preview magazines. The "overall" ranking is not that average, but rather the rank of their average versus that of the other 118 I-A schools.
Oh, and the KEY:
AT: Athlon
LN: Lindy's
SN: The Sporting News
SS: Street & Smith's (not included in the average as they only have a top 25, rather than ranking all 119 teams)
ST: Phil Steele's power poll)

1. West Virginia (#3 overall - AT: #5, LN: #4, SN: #4, SS: #2, ST: #5)
2. Louisville (#8 overall - AT #13, LN: #9, SN: #9, SS: #10, ST: #4)
3. Rutgers (#19 overall - AT #10, LN: #16, SN: #19, SS #19, ST: #39)
4. South Florida (#25 overall - AT: #31, LN: #26, SN: #21, SS: --, ST: #30)
5. Pittsburgh (#54 overall - AT: #55, LN: #60, SN: #55, SS: --, ST: #56)
6. Cincinnati (#57 overall - AT: #53, LN: #52, SN: #81, SS: --, ST: #58)
7. Connecticut (#82 overall - AT: #80, LN: #82, SN: #100, SS: --, ST: #71)
8. Syracuse (#101 overall - AT: #99, LN: #89, SN: #105, SS: --, ST: #97)

OVERRATED: Rutgers. Most overrated team in the nation, easy. This was roughly a 7-8 win team last year rather than a national title contender, as Rutgers had a few close wins which could've easily gone the other way. Funnily enough, though, their schedule may be weak enough where they can pull off another 10-win season.

UNDERRATED: Cincinnati. 8-4 season, played a much tougher schedule than Rutgers, all their non-Ohio State losses were fairly close, aaand they probably wound up with a better head coach than they had before. The coaching change is a concern, but still. However, they may be the anti-Rutgers, as they draw all of their Big East peers (USF, Rutgers and Pitt) on the road.


(Done power-poll style. I floated the idea of ranking it based on expected wins, but it's easier this way for when I do my top 25, which again, will be power-poll style.)

1. West Virginia

And barely. Might as well start with the obvious stars of the show, QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton. Exciting, lightning-quick, whatever adjectives you want to use basically boil down to two words: Holy shit! And WR Darius Reynaud gives them a top player at each offensive skill position, even though a #2 needs to emerge. The defense was average last year, but they're helped by a lot of experience returning for 2007. WVU runs a 3-3-5, returns 2/3 of their DL, and while the LB corps loses some starters, they return #4 tackler Reed Williams among other upperclassmen. The secondary was the weakness of the D last year, though, barely making the top 100 nationally in terms of pass yards allowed. However, what was a weakness may become a strength, as WVU returns starters at all 4 of the traditional secondary positions, as well as adding highly touted JuCo CB Ellis Lankster and Michigan transfer/2-year starter Ryan Mundy at safety. There's still some concern for the team as a whole, though -- they replace OL coach Rick Trickett, as well as the star of their O-line, Dan Mozes, and South Florida, Cincinnati, and Rutgers could all be dangerous on the road. Still, the concerns are slightly less worrying than those of Louisville, who, yes, WVU has at home, so the Mountaineers are the slight favorite in the Big East.

THE REALM OF POSSIBILITIES: 10-12 overall wins, 5-7 conference wins

2. Louisville

Gotta start with the Cardinals' Heisman candidate, coulda-been-a-Raider QB Brian Brohm, who even for Colt Brennan fans like myself, is pretty much easily the #1 signal-caller in the country. Despite the occasional injury problem, Brohm has a career 66% completion percentage, and a 41/12 TD/INT ratio. And hey, the rest of the offense is pretty good, too! Brohm has two all-Big East caliber WRs to throw to in Harry Douglas and 6'6" Mario Urrutia, and the running game will likely be led by sophomore Anthony Allen, who had only 406 rushing yards last season, but scored 14 TDs. They do have to replace two starters on the OL, so that may be a concern; however, those positions will likely be filled by seniors, rather than someone thrown to the wolves. So, yeah, Louisville returns almost everyone from the #2 yardage and #3 scoring offense (tied with -- West Virginia!) in the country. The defense may be more of a concern, however. The front seven may not be much of a worry, as despite the losses of DT Amobi Okoye and LB Brandon Johnson, those positions will be filled with upperclassmen or, dare I speculate, extremely talented ex-Miami LB/felon Willie Williams. The weakness of Louisville, instead, looks to be the secondary. Last year's unit can be described as "not especially great", and must replace three starters: CB William Gay and safeties Gavin Smart and Brandon Sharp. All may not be lost, since the secondary gains both Rod Council, a CB with star potential who missed most of '06 due to injury, and highly touted JuCo CB Woodny Turenne. While there is still some experience, this type of turnover on a unit that wasn't that strong to begin with is somewhat of a worry. Then there's the coaching change from Bobby Petrino to Steve Kragthorpe, which actually may be a non-factor for the time being, as Kragthorpe keeps both co-OC Jeff Brohm (Brian's brother) and DC Mike Cassity from Petrino's staff. The case can easily be made for Louisville over West Virginia, but both the coaching change, as minor a hitch as it may be, and the loss of two stars like Okoye and Gay are just enough for me to put Louisville at #2.

THE REALM OF POSSIBILITIES: 10-12 overall wins, 5-7 conference wins

3. South Florida

When Phil Steele said he almost predicted USF to win the Big East, I was like "Phil Steele? More like Phil Crazy." But the more I look at this team, the more I like them, and the more I see that, yes, South Florida in the BCS is a distinct possibility. As per the standard, we'll start with the offense. QB Matt Grothe was a one-man show last year, going from unheralded freshman backup at the start of the year to, in the end, leading the time in yards both through the air and on the ground. And he has help! The hole at RB will hopefully be filled by prep stud Mike Ford (quite possibly the top recruit in USF history), and while the WR corps loses two starters, those holes will be filled by Amarri Jackson (11 starts and probably their star WR in '05) and Taurus Johnson (honorable mention all-Big East despite only 2 starts last year.) Oh, and the entire offense line returns. So, as long as Grothe doesn't suffer some sort of sophomore slump (like that alliteration?), the Bulls offense should be fine. On defense, the situation is similar, as lots of starters return. All four starters return on the defensive line, and the lone hole in the secondary (free safety) will be filled by part-time starting strong safety Danny Verpaele. The only major losses are in the LB corps, last year's most talented part of the defense, but the Bulls return leading tackler Ben Moffitt, and the two open slots will be filled by either promising talent (LeBrandon Glover, Donte Spires) or transfers from other BCS schools (Tyrone McKenzie from Michigan State, Marvin Peoples from Iowa State.) So, yeah, USF has lots of returning talent on both sides of the ball, and just as much potential. The Bulls are probably, in fact, closer to the "Big Two" than to the rest of the Big East pack. While the OOC schedule does include a difficult game at Auburn, USF does host both West Virginia and Louisville; winning 2 out of those 3 games wouldn't surprise me, and yes, this could be a very big year.

THE REALM OF POSSIBILITIES: 8-11 overall wins, 4-7 conference wins

4. Rutgers

I had Rutgers at #5 until the last moment, and as overrated as this team is on a national level, this almost seems too low. But I guess that's what happens when you see a team plastered on the cover of Athlon as #10 in the nation. Now, Greg Schiano's done a great job building this program, but national title contender? Really? Any hope whatsoever of Rutgers living up to the hype will have to begin with QB Mike Teel, who threw for 2135 yards with a 12/13 ratio last year. While he was highly touted out of HS, which suggests the talent is there for a breakout year, I'll believe it when I see it. But the star of the show, and the man adorning essentially every preview magazine cover in the Northeast, is RB Ray Rice. And, well, he's very good! Still, I have some trepidation, much like Rutgers as a whole, about Rice's ability to repeat last season, between the loss of Brian Leonard and some losses along the offensive line. OG Cameron Stephenson graduated, but that hole will be filled with either experience or uber-recruit Anthony Davis. However, Rutgers graduated their top two centers, so there'll be a hole in the middle. It could be worse, but I'm still somewhat skeptical of the running game in light of Rice now being the sole back and losing some talent on the OL; then again, I seem to be in the minority in viewing Rice as simply a very talented back than the kind of uber-back who can succeed in any situation at the level of, say, a McFadden or a Slaton. The defense, which was excellent last year, experiences quite a bit of turnover as well. The result is somewhat of a mixed bag -- while the front seven has faced heavy losses (1 DE, 1 DT, 2 LB), the open spots should be in the hands of highly touted talent, such a frosh LB Manny Abreu. In the secondary, which was one of the best in the nation last year, 3 of the 4 starters return; however, the open spot at CB has neither a top recruit or an experienced upperclassman to fill it, unless you count junior Anthony Miller, who has spent the last two years redshirted and suspended. Still, three out of four ain't bad, especially when you had the #7 pass defense in the country. Even if national title aspirations are a bit, well, insane, Rutgers still has the schedule (and, frankly, the defense) to pull off an 11-win season -- they get Louisville on the road, but also easily beatable Syracuse and Connecticut, they get USF and WVU at home, and their OOC schedule is a joke: Buffalo, Navy, Norfolk, and Maryland at home, and then a road game at Army. Seriously now. So, yeah, I fully suspect that most of the year will be spent yelling about how Rutgers really isn't THAT good while they're sitting in the top ten. Fun.

THE REALM OF POSSIBILITIES: 9-11 overall wins, 4-6 conference wins

5. Cincinnati

Oh, so close, but Rutgers' statistical dominance on defense made me nudge them ahead of the Bearcats. But, yeah, these teams are much closer in talent than their records will probably indicate. Schedule aside, both teams projected at about the same level last year, and the big question here is "Will Cincinnati's experience help them more than the coaching change will hurt them?" And I will say YES!, partially because I love Brian Kelly and think his hire will be more Todd Graham (even if Rice was lucky last year) than Greg Robinson. On offense, the Bearcats return pretty much everyone at the skill positions, losing only TE Brent Celek from the receiving corps. They also have a number of new arrivals; ex-Wake Forest QB Ben Mauk, all-time HS passing leader and subject of the sentence "Ben Mauk getting hurt led to Riley Skinner leading Wake to the ACC title," will battle Dustin Grutza for the starting job, while ex-Michigan RB Mister Simpson will hope to academically qualify and have an awesome name. The O-line loses three starters, but star RG Trevor Canfield returns, and those three spots will be filled from considerable OL depth. On defense, six of the front seven return, and the major losses are CB John Bowie and SS Dominic Ross. While those losses hurt, the Cincinnati pass D should still be decent at the very worst, as the two returning starters, CB Mike Mickens and SS Haruki Nakamura, have all-Big East level talent. Cincinnati has quite a range of possibilities, depending on how the secondary losses and the coaching change affect things. Unfortunately, the schedule isn't very forgiving; while Cincy drops Ohio State and Virginia Tech out of conference, they still play a solid Oregon State team, have only one winnable home conference game in Connecticut, and play teams they're close in talent to (Pitt, USF, Rutgers) all on the road.

THE REALM OF POSSIBILITIES: 6-9 overall wins, 3-5 conference wins

6. Pittsburgh

Hoo boy. There's potential here, as Dave Wannstedt has continually brought in very good recruiting classes, there's just the question if they'll ever fulfill it, partly because they're coached by, well, Dave Wannstedt. On offense, the big concern is replacing three-year starting QB Tyler Palko. The main contenders seem to be junior Bill Stull or top frosh Pat Bostick, but at any rate, whoever wins the starting job will have a lot of help. The Panthers surprisingly had a top-15 scoring offense last year, and return top RB LaRod Stephens-Dowling, FB Conredge Collins, more or less the entire receiving corps short of the tight end, and 4/5 of the offensive line, with the one open slot being filled by a three-year backup. Oh, and they add top-flight frosh RB LeSean McCoy. So, while the offense may take a bit of a step back, the running game should be more than enough to carry the load. Surprisingly, for a team coached by Wannstedt, the defense last year was ehhhhh, especially considering they have to replace NFL draft choices Darrelle Revis, H.B. Blades and Clint Session. The defensive line returns everyone, but past that, it's turnover turnover turnover. CB Kennard Cox and SS Mike Phillips are the only returning defensive starters outside of the DL, and outside of that, it's nothing but shiny talent, mostly of the sophomore and junior variety. Again, there's a lot of potential, especially on the offensive side of the ball, and the conference schedule is somewhat favorable, with UConn, Cincy, Cuse and USF coming to Pitt, and the first three being quite winnable. Out of conference, the Michigan State and Virginia games would be much better served to be at home (obviously), but one out of two isn't out of the question. This looks like a rebuilding year for Pitt, though oddly enough, it may be one in which they get back to a bowl game.

THE REALM OF POSSIBILITIES: 5-8 wins overall, 2-4 conference wins

7. Connecticut

Sigh. Oh Connecticut, you were so promising, what happened? Well, just some bad luck last season, more or less. And ignoring some subpar recruiting, namely the Aaron Hernandez fiasco (QB's brother is the top HS TE and decommits to go to Florida.) UConn had a few games that were winnable, namely Wake, Syracuse, and even Rutgers, that they...well, didn't. So, as a result, UConn's probably closer to the middle of the Big East pack than the dregs (Syracuse.) Still, this doesn't mean the Huskies don't have some glaring problems, namely -- segueway alert -- the quarterback position! Although ex-QB (now WR) DJ Hernandez was electrifying against Pittsburgh last season, the passing game was, well, fucking terrible. Fucking terrible like Chris Berman announcing the home run derby right now. Sorry about that. ANYWAY. The offense was more or less a horrible mess, between the #110 passing game in the country and an often-injured offensive line. The lone bright spot was sophomore RB Donald Brown, who had 896 yards on 5.6 YPC as a frosh, and seems to be the consensus #3 RB in the conference behind Slaton and Rice. But, things may be looking up for the Huskies offense. Brown returns, and all those injuries on the OL last year mean lots of depth this year. And then there's the man who's probably going to make or break Connecticut's season: the top incoming JuCo QB in the country, Tyler Lorenzen. The 2960 yards, 26/3 TD/INT ratio, 836 rushing yards line Lorenzen had last season more or less doubles the output of the QBs last year. Lorenzen will need to come through for the Huskies offense to be any good; even if he doesn't, Brown may be enough to carry it to "respectable" over a full season, and hey, there's always ex-Notre Dame QB Zach Fraser in 2008. The defense, usually a strength, was a mixed bag last season, and may be the same this coming year. The rush defense was horrible last year, giving up 221 rushing yards to Louisville, 275 to West Virginia, and, oh yeah, 504 to Navy. And, to make matters worse, UConn loses both starting DTs, Rhema Fuller and Ray Blagman. Still, the other 6 of the top 8 return along the defensive line, so things may not be completely dire. The linebacker corps should once again be a strength, as two of the three slots will be filled by star seniors Danny Lansanah and Ryan Henegan, and the other by spring game standout Scott Lutrus or Jarrell Miller, likely the top signee in UConn history. And, much like the D-line, the secondary has both good news and bad news. The good news is that the secondary was one of the better ones in the country (though quite possibly since everyone was too busy running the ball), and CB duo Darius Butler and Tyvon Branch are as good as any in the conference. The bad news is that lost both starters at safety. Still, the two open slots should go to experienced senior Donnell Ford and part-time starter Robert Vaughn, so with the strength at CB, the secondary should be a strength on the whole. As for the season outlook, it's pretty much dependent on Tyler Lorenzen and to a lesser extent, the run defense. With Lorenzen doing well, games at Virginia, Cincinnati or hosting Rutgers suddenly become winnable. If the passing game remains in the doldrums, Donald Brown should be enough to beat Temple, Maine, and probably Duke, and if the defense plays pretty well, maybe they can steal a conference game. So, yeah, if the passing game doesn't come through, it'll be last year all over again. And hey, then there'll at least be Zach Fraser in 2008. Though maybe not coach Randy Edsall.

THE REALM OF POSSIBILITIES: 3-8 overall wins, 0-4 conference wins

8. Syracuse

I could leave it at "They were even worse than that record last year showed, and they have the least returning starters in the conference." But, god help me, I'm gonna go dig into Syracuse in depth. Pardon while I hold my nose. Might as well hold pattern and start with the offense. At QB, Cuse loses longtime starter/bust Perry Patterson, and replace him with highly touted QB of the future Andrew Robinson. While Robinson is a sophomore, for some reason he wasn't given much playing time as the ship was sinking last year, only attempting 8 passes as a true frosh. At running back, there's a mix of good and bad luck, as Curtis Brinkley returns as the starter, but only after leading rusher Delone Carter was lost for the year with a dislocated hip. Things look somewhat better at the other offensive positions. Top two receivers Mike Williams and Rice Moss return, and the #3 WR will be Taj Smith, who led the team in receiving before an injury last year. Also, three of five starters return on the offensive line, and the other two slots will be filled by experienced seniors. The defense was pretty awful last year, giving up more rushing yards than Connecticut, but still letting teams throw all over them as well. Whether or not things will improve is somewhat of a mixed bag. The defensive line returns three of four starters and a bunch of depth, and both safeties return, but otherwise, ehhhh. The secondary may yet be decent, as the CB position has some depth if not experience, and SS/ex-QB Joe Fields has some insight into the mind of an interception-prone quarterback. As for the linebackers, they will surely have some players that will take the field at the lineback position. As for the outlook on the year, Buffalo's probably the only sure win (since without thinking, I seriously checked the schedule looking for Syracuse as the other easy win), and their best chances at home wins will probably come against Washington or even Illinois out of conference. And I suppose they could win at Miami of Ohio. If they had Connecticut at home, I'd give them a chance if the Huskies don't get things together, but getting WVU, Rutgers, USF and Cincinnati at home likely won't result in any wins. On the plus side, maybe this'll lead to getting a better coach. Ohhh, burn.

THE REALM OF POSSIBILITIES: 1-5 overall wins, 0-2 conference wins